Christmas Music: There's a Lot More Than "Messiah"
Oh, sorry – too soon?
Actually, musically speaking, it isn’t. I was looking at the arts calendar, and I see that the annual Hartford Symphony/Hartford Chorale performance of Handel’s “Messiah”is coming up on December 10 at the Bushnell. (For old times’ sake, the performance will take place in the big hall, the Mortensen, as opposed to the Belding, where most of the regular season HSO concerts are now held.)
“Messiah,” of course, is one of the great rites of the season, and I’m old-school enough to think that everybody ought to go to a live performance every year. I’m sure there are other performances coming up in other towns.
But every year at this season, people ask me: apart from “Messiah,” what are the other classical Christmas pieces out there?
So here are a half-dozen or so. Back in the old days -- with old days defined as a time when there were actual record “stores,” and for that matter, actual discs that one bought and owned -- I would be so presumptuous as to recommend certain specific recordings of these works. But now I think the piece may be more import than the performance.
You can find this music pretty readily on Amazon or iTunes (and please think about buying the music, as opposed to using the streaming services that pay the artists virtually nothing), but I also want to call to your attention a website that I use for classical music. It is ArkivMusic.com, and it is the most complete and well-stocked vendor of classical discs that I know of. It also boasts a very well-organized and easily navigated website.
The pieces, then, in no particular order:
Cantate de Noel (Christmas Cantata) -- Arthur Honegger
Of all the alt Christmas classical pieces that vie for a place on our seasonal playlists, this is my personal favorite. Its forces are large (orchestra, chorus, organ, children’s chorus, soloists) but the piece itself is barely 20 minutes long.
Written in 1953 by the Swiss/French composer Arthur Honegger (one of the group called “the Six,” along with Poulenc and Milhaud, and on my short list of underrated composers of the 20th century) it nicely conveys both the mystery and joy of the Christmas story.
Amahl and the Night Visitors -- Menotti
A generation ago, I wouldn’t have had to point out this piece to anyone, because it was everywhere. In fact, this one-act work, commissioned by NBC in 1951 as the first made-for-television opera (let’s try to imagine a commercial network commissioning an opera today) was broadcast every Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, performed live from the NBC studios in New York, for 12 consecutive years.
After that, it was shown more sporadically. I guess if it shows up on TV at all anymore, it’s likely to be on some obscure cable channel. It may not be as familiar as it once was, but this musical fable about a handicapped shepherd boy whose life is changed by a visit from three strangers is still a viable family experience, at least if you can grab the kids before they’ve moved on to Xbox and PlayStation.
L’Enfance du Christ -- Berlioz
Radiant and affirmative, this is one of the composer’s loveliest pieces, with little of the composer’s angsty side. Technically this three-part oratorio is not really a Christmas work at all, since it depicts the Biblical accounts of events leading up to, and immediately following, the birth of Jesus, but not the birth story itself.
But it has become customary to perform it at this season, and its most famous chorus, “The Shepherd’s Farewell,’’ has almost taken on an independent life as an unofficial carol.
Ceremony of Carols -- Britten
This setting of eight medieval nativity poems has become a certified classic. I just looked it up and found more than 50 in-print recordings.
Scored for three-part treble chorus (these days usually boys or children, but sometime women) and harp, the music has a crisp, unsentimental feel but it is also lyrical and melodic – seemingly irreconcilable qualities that Britten had a special knack for bringing together, especially in his vocal and choral music.
Hodie -- Ralph Vaughan Williams
This atmospheric, exuberant, 75-minute cantata gets my vote for the most remarkable piece of music ever written by an 82-year old man. (Verdi gets an honorable mention in this general category, although he was two years younger when he wrote “Falstaff,” his final opera.) Again, the forces are large – big orchestra, mixed chorus, boys’ choir, organ, soloists – but Vaughan Williams, who was a master orchestrator, handles the elements with the confidence of, well, someone who’s been at this a while.
El Nino -- John Adams
Premiered in Paris in 2000 and slowly becoming a seasonal perennial, John Adams’s quirky, heartfelt opera-oratoriotells the Nativity story mostly from Mary’s point of view.
It takes a little while to get used to the soundworld of the piece, which heavily incorporates a trio of counter-tenors to advance the story. But the musical language is direct and accessible, and it has many moments of real beauty. There is both an audio CD featuring the original cast (Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, et al.) as well as a compelling DVD of the original staged production with the same forces.
There are many others: Bach’s “Christmas Cantata,” Poulenc’s haunting “Four Christmas Motets,” John Rutter’s “Dancing Day,” Respighi’s strange but compelling little work, “Lauda per la Nativita del Signore,” to name a few.
As for carols and traditional music, there are literally hundreds of recordings. Two favorites of mine are “Nativitas” (Nimbus), a collection of American carols, and the venerable “Candlelight Carols” (London), sung by the choir of, and recorded in the sanctuary of, Trinity Church in Boston.
As for pop Christmas music, maybe we’ll talk about that in another post, although I can say it would definitely be a less merry Christmas for me without the Ray Charles/Betty Carter version of “Baby it’s Cold Outside.”
Looking Ahead, Part Deux
As long as we’re looking ahead to Christmas, we might as well look all the way to next summer: Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony up in Lenox, Massachusetts, has just announced its lineup for 2015.
Highlights include six programs led by the BSO’s new music director, Andris Nelsons, including a performance (8/8) of Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”) featuring the orchestra of the Tanglewood Music Center, the world-renowned young professional training program which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
Bryn Terfel stars as Scarpia in a performance of Act I of Puccini’s “Tosca” (7/11);
An all-American BSO Opening Night featuring works by Copland and Gershwin (7/3);
Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops leads a Stephen Sondheim Tribute (6/20).
The complete roster is at Tanglewood.org.
Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant’s fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.